-Bobby Landis killed a cop, an inmate, and attempted multiple prison escapes.
Bobby Landis was a scoundrel. Before he set foot in Spokane at sixteen years of age, he was an accomplished thief, who had shot and nearly killed a druggist. His crimes had earned him a fourteen month stay at a reformatory for young boys, and when released he violated the terms of his parole. This was just the prologue of Landis’ wrap sheet, once he arrived in the Inland Northwest he became an infamous criminal and an uncontrollable prisoner.
On November 13, 1929, Spokane Police Detectives witnessed two boys buying a handgun from a pawn shop on West Main Avenue. The detectives, Roy Fordyce and George Bradley, confronted the suspicious pair as they left the shop. The detectives questioned the boys and, after learning they were staying across the street at the dodgy Spokoma Hotel, asked to search their room. The boys agreed and the group headed up to the third floor of the building. It is unclear exactly what transpired after they entered the room, but moments later the unmistakable sound of gunshots poured from the hotel.
When the firing came to a stop, the boys were apprehended but both officers had been shot, and Detective Roy Fordyce lay dead on the floor. The suspects were arrested and one of the boys, “Baby Face” Bobby Landis, took responsibility for the murder and confessed to shooting his weapon first. After a dramatic trial, the jury convicted Landis of murder of a police officer. The young murderer was spared the death penalty, in part due to his age and his questionable mental stability, and he was sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.
Landis took the life sentence in stride. Less than a year after he arrived, he made his first escape attempt. The convict made it over the first prison wall but he gave up when guards started shooting at him. Landis was not discouraged though. Eighteen months later, he sprinted across the yard and pole-vaulted over the west prison wall. This time he made it out, but he was recaptured later that day and returned to the prison. In another daring escape attempt, Landis, with a group of fellow inmates, hijacked a prison truck and led guards on a chase through downtown Walla Walla ending in a gunfight that left Landis wounded.
Before he faded from the public eye, Landis added one more dark line to his already extensive wrap sheet. He and another prisoner from Spokane County, Joe McWilliams, had been bumping heads. At some point, Landis had enough of McWilliams antics. One morning, while the two were in the exercise area together, Landis drew a handmade knife and stabbed McWilliams twice, once in the stomach and again in the chest. McWilliams spent the next three months in the prison hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He was not tried for the crime, but “Baby Face” Bobby Landis had killed again.
In just over three years at the penitentiary, Landis nearly escaped three times and killed a fellow inmate. But, despite his turbulent start, the convict settled in to prison life and never committed another major violation. Although he was handed a life sentence, after serving nearly twenty-two years Robert Landis was paroled from the penitentiary in 1951. “One of the prison’s all-time worst headaches had,” according to the Spokesman-Review, “mellowed and matured with manhood.”
This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”